Hogback Mountain brewmeister turns on the taps in Bristol
BRISTOL — Vermont, currently home to more microbreweries per capita than any other state in the union, is about to welcome one more. Hogback Mountain Brewery will soon be ready to hit the shelves.
Brewer Kevin Hanson has spent the past year obtaining state and federal permits, renovating his North Street barn in Bristol and developing his seasonal line of traditional brews. Hanson said he will not be brewing his own favorite beer — classic India pale ale — which is the most popular beer in the already crowded American microbrew market, but will instead focus on traditional beers that fall more into niche categories.
Hanson expects to have bottles on the shelves at Bristol Discount Beverage and at Lantman’s Market in Hinesburg, as well as on tap at Bar Antidote in Vergennes, within the next week or two. And he’s begun discussion with local restaurants like the Bobcat Café and Mary’s Restaurant in Bristol, and is eyeing the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op.
Hanson, 61, has home brewed beer for over two decades, winning a series of awards in the process. Last January, he walked away from his job as a facilities manager at UTC Aerospace Systems in Vergennes, where he worked for decades. He plans to start small, to keep Hogback a one-man operation and to focus on distribution within Addison County, through Hogback’s sister company Pocock Distributing.
Although the Bristol native jokes that he sees the business as a retirement supplement, a look around his small but pristine and meticulously set up operation belies his laconic style and low-key statements. Hanson can talk beer with exacting precision and exudes the kind of Yankee no-fuss practicality that lets you know he’s serious about producing great beer.
“Well I don’t do anything without going too far into it,” Hanson admits. “My wife has a lot to say about that sometimes. This just happens to be what I became interested in and over the years played around with this, that and the other thing.”
Hanson brews in small batches, 45 gallons at a time. Business consultants have told him that he should increase his scale and that he could be brewing 10 barrels in the same time he’s taking to brew just one. But Hanson is confident that he’s set things up to be successful on his own terms.
“Of course the conventional wisdom is, ‘This is just insane!’” he said. “It’s too small for the volume of beer you can make. You’ll just be a slave to it, and if you’re lucky you’ll break even.”
But Hanson is clearly whistling while he works and walks his now well-traveled 20-foot commute from the house to the barn.
As a home brewer, Hanson called his beer “Fat Cat” until the Atlanta-based Fat Cat Beer Co. informed him that that name was already taken. So Hanson began to look elsewhere. In the competitive world of microbrews, he knew he needed a name that would be both unique and distinctive, and became inspired by the top-rated Hill Farmstead Brewery’s Ancestor series, named after the brewers’ ancestors.
A lover of antique postcards, Hanson found a vintage postcard on eBay labeled “Hogback Mt. Bristol Vt.” hand-lettered in a spidery 1920s script, and knew he had his brand.
A local history buff, Hanson decided to name each brew after a historic Bristol business and began trolling old books on Bristol history and photo archives to find the names and places that were most evocative of the town’s rich heritage. One of his favorites is Bristol House, the name he’s chosen for a Bavarian-style Pilsner.
“Townspeople have never forgotten or forgiven the fact that the Bristol House got torn down,” said Hanson. “So that will hit a lot of hearts.”
Dilapidated though it was, Hanson remembers the original building fondly from his childhood and you can tell still wonders how a building like that got exchanged for the Rite-Aid parking lot. As he says on the label, “The Bristol House, in addition to providing lodging for travelers, held social functions and at one time the Middlebury College German School. Due to the economics of the late 1950s, the inn was torn down. Townspeople still have fond memories of this building and lament about its demise. In the words of Joni Mitchell, ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’”
Other former Bristol businesses that will be memorialized on the labels include World War I flying ace Joe Rock’s “Rock’s Flying Service” (a pale ale), “Bartlett Plow Works” (a brown porter), and “The Coffin Factory” (an English-style India pale ale).
Currently brewing and fermenting, and first to be hitting the shelves, will be an American-style brown ale with Cascade hops called “Drake Smith & Co.” and a wild card offering for a short-run series that he’s calling “Carriage Barn.” Hanson will use the Carriage Barn limited release beers to experiment with more quirky alternatives and to test different ingredients and brew styles.
The first Carriage Barn is being brewed with locally grown hops from just a few blocks away in Bristol.
Though working with traditionally malted grains from Belgium, England and elsewhere and hops primarily from the Yakima Valley in Washington state, Hanson speaks enthusiastically about the possibilities for sourcing locally.
He’s especially impressed with the Vermont Hops Project at the University of Vermont, run by Heather Darby. He knows intimately where hops and grains can be sourced in Addison County and throughout the state and is hoping to brew a Carriage Barn limited release using locally grown fresh hops next fall.
One key local ingredient in Hanson’s approach to beer brewing is spring water, which he collects himself direct from two local sources, one from higher up and another from lower down the mountains. Water is incredibly important to so many of the classic, traditionally brewed beers, said Hanson. And he discusses at length how the naturally soft water found around Pilsen in what’s now the Czech Republic created a style of beer popular since the 1200s, and how the gose style of beer gets its saltiness from the high saline content found naturally around Goslar, Germany, where it originated.
Given the glaciers that carved Vermont and left behind its mountains, granites, marbles and gravels, one would think that local spring waters would give Vermont beers a terrific start. And indeed, Vermont beers and breweries currently are earning top ratings nationwide.
Hanson plans to roll out his beers seasonally, pairing taste to the weather. This winter he plans to follow up the release of his Drake Smith & Co. with other dark beers such as his Bartlett Plow Works, Lake Dunmore Power & Traction Co. and Rock’s Flying Service. Next spring he will move production to his Bristol House Pilsner and other lighter beers. Next summer, he plans to produce a thirst-quenching German gose called R.W. Shadrick Motor Sales and a Bristol Railroad hefeweizen.
Area journalists are expecting their favorites to include the Bristol Herald and the Bristol Press.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].